Check out Alice Chess, our featured variant for June, 2024.

Interview with Robert Abbott

Dear Robert Abbott,

Thank you for giving us this interview, in the month that your game Ultima is Chess Variant of the Month (November 2001).

Can you tell something about yourself? (E.g., where do you live, how old are you, what is/was your profession, etc.)

I’m 68, I live in Jupiter Florida, and I guess I’m what you’d call retired. I used to work as a computer programmer (mostly IBM 360 assembler language). Some of my games made a little bit of money, but never enough for me to live on.

Speaking of programming, I recently learned JavaScript (well, I learned about half of the language) and I’ve also been using HTML. They’ve been a lot of fun.

First, some questions on Ultima. How did you create this game?

Please refer to my web site for the answer to this. I just finished working on a page about Ultima and it gives a pretty good explanation of the creation of the game.

In a text in World Game Review, you stated that you thought that Ultima has serious flaws. Why can this be true when many people like to play this game?

I don’t really know. I played it for years myself, but then I got frustrated that it was so hard to see what was going on. I’m also not very good at Ultima or at any games of this type. (I should point out, however, that I’m the world’s greatest Eleusis player, though that’s hard to prove.)

Ultima seems to have taken on a life of its own. Even if you revise it 50 more times, there will be people playing the 1963 rules. How do you feel about that?

Well, I can’t object to people not playing my 1968 version because it was a pretty bad idea. However, I wish game players would be more open to revised versions. Alex Randolph told me that game players never want you to change anything.

I read in the Encyclopedia of Chess Variants that you chose Baroque as the original name of Ultima, but that the publisher insisted on changing the name. Why *did* the publisher of "Abbott's New Card Games" insist on calling the game Ultima?

I’m not sure. I still like Baroque better than Ultima, but maybe the publisher thought that Ultima was more accessible. He also told me that he would have changed the name of Eleusis if it hadn’t appeared previously in Scientific American.

By the way, my publisher, Sol Stein, was a really bright guy and knew what he was doing. There’s the often repeated tale of the publisher (or the producer, or “the suits”) ruining the idea of the creative artist. This story is not always true and the artist is frequently wrong. For example, the publisher of my game Epaminondas told me the name was a bad idea, but I insisted on keeping it. I now realize he was right and I was wrong.

You wrote that you hope that others would make a better revision of Ultima. One of the editors of the Chess Variant Pages suggested to make a contest for the best revision of Ultima. (Another of our editors thought it was not a good idea...) What do you think about that idea? Would you in case such a contest would happen be willing to be a judge?

I don’t think a contest would be a good idea, but it would be great if (1) someone came up with an Ultima revision and wrote a description of it, (2) Chess Variants posted the description on its web site, (3) players tried the variant and wrote comments about it, and (4) Chess Variants posted the comments. The process could start over with another revision. This could go on for years.

A revision need not change all the forms of capture. It would be a major accomplishment if a revision changed just one form of capture and got it to work within the framework of the game.

One of the pleasant features of Ultima is that it can be played with most chess sets. Should this also be true for a revision of Ultima?

Ultima could continue to be played on a chessboard or it could be turned into a proprietary game. Either way would be okay. There probably isn’t any commercial potential in the game.

What is the process how you create a game?

I don’t know.

What do you think makes a good game?

I could write a book about this, but I won’t.

What led you to game design in the first place?

I’m not sure, but I always felt like doing something creative.

What games did you play as a kid?

All the Parker Brothers games and a lot of card games.

What games do you play now?

Hardly any.

When, where, and with who do you play games?

I don’t have any friends who are serious about games, but my wife and I play something every now and then.

There are several chess variants that utilize playing cards. Have you invented, or considered inventing a chess variant that utilizes cards?

No, I’ve never done much with chess variants. I have tried Kriegspiel, and I once wrote a program for the TRS-80 that acted as a Kriegspiel referee. Actually, I never thought of Ultima as a chess variant since only one of its pieces uses the replacement capture, which is the main characteristic of chess. Ultima just uses the physical equipment of chess.

You also created many highly original puzzles. Some unusual and rather complex mazes/labyrinths can be found on your website. How do you get the ideas for these puzzles?

The first maze I did was “The Farmer Goes to Market,” which appeared in Martin Gardner’s column back in 1962. It was inspired by the system of one-way streets that the traffic engineer Henry Barnes created in Denver. At the time I thought of this as just a puzzle, not a maze. Later in the 1980s I started doing more of these puzzles and I saw that they were more like mazes than like puzzles and they had all the appeal of mazes.

By the way, I’ve tried to create games based on mazes but never with any success. I don’t think anyone else has created an interesting game that incorporated a maze.

Thank you for the interview!


Questions by Peter Aronson, Hans Bodlaender, and David Howe. Answers by Robert Abbott. Webpage made by Hans Bodlaender. (c) 2001.
WWW page created: November 26, 2001.